An 80-game suspension for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug ensured that this would be a year unlike any other in the life of Red Sox prospect Michael Chavis.
Everything about 2018 remains incomprehensible to him. It is a year that feels both too short and interminable. It is a time when fans have brought him reassurance and amusement and frustration. It has been a period in which the one constant escape in his life – baseball – was made inaccessible by the barricade of a suspension.
Chavis frequently expressed confusion and even bewilderment in a 30-minute conversation about what’s transpired since that unforgettable day when he received news of his penalty via a phone call from a Red Sox official.
“I’m expecting it to be my invitation to big league camp,” said Chavis, who plays first and third base. “I was expecting it to be like, ‘Congratulations, you’re invited to big league camp,’ and I get that news and I’m just like, that’s impossible.
“Just shocked. And I remember just sitting there just mad and confused and concerned and helpless. Just helpless.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Did you call the right person?’ ”
Yes, they had. A urine sample taken during the Arizona Fall League had come back positive for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone. Chavis is adamant that he never knowingly took a banned performance enhancer, and says he “destroyed myself in the offseason just trying to figure out what happened” and whether any over-the-counter substances could have triggered the positive.
But he couldn’t come up with an answer while appealing the suspension. Chavis is grateful for the people in his life who believed him and supported him, but he recognizes there will be plenty of people who find it difficult to accept his denials.
And he knew that struggling once he was back in games would amplify questions about whether his breakout season in 2017 — a career-high 31 homers — was the product of hard work or cheating.
“I don’t even know how to comprehend all of these people saying this stuff about me and people who don’t even know me hating me and this ‘fact’ that everybody is claiming about me when I know I didn’t do it,” said Chavis.
“I got so mad and just, just knowing everything that I’ve done my entire life, knowing everything that my mom’s done to put me in this position. My mom has worked her ass off her entire life so that I could play baseball and just knowing that that was torn apart . . .
“When I was a kid, I would get mad at her because she would come home late and I thought it was because she didn’t want to hang out with me, but she would stay at work later and she would work until 9 o’clock at night.
“She would wake up at 4 and she’d get home at 9 o’clock at night because she was trying to make more money so she could pay for my travel ball.”
As supportive as Chavis’s family had been, the suspension and its residue have been things Chavis alone must manage.
Now, when Chavis enters a park, he is identified not by his status as a top Red Sox prospect but by a failed drug test. If there were any question about that, it was erased in Chavis’s first game back with Portland. In his first plate appearance, he struck out, an opportunity for a fan to pick some low-hanging fruit.
“I hear somebody right behind [the on-deck circle] screaming, ‘I bet you wish you had your . . . whatever I was suspended for,” said Chavis. “He said the entire name, and I remember like I was kind of mad, but I also laughed because he said the entire name and I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t even pronounce that.’
“I try to laugh things off. I try to keep it lighthearted and everything like that. But there has, I mean obviously there’s been heckling and there has been a lot of that. I mean, I even got it at home in Portland. It’s kind of a cheap shot.”
Chavis is painfully aware that such feedback is unavoidable, and that the only way to quiet it — or at least render it irrelevant — is to perform. Yet he also recognized that if he entered the year trying to hit a homer every time he stepped to the plate, he’d descend into a vortex of swings and misses.
Efforts to validate supporters and disprove critics had led to severe struggles after the Sox took Chavis in the first round of the 2014 draft, and again in Single A Greenville in 2015 and 2016. He wanted to avoid a repeat of those failures.
“Obviously the thought slips in my head about trying to prove myself,” he said. “That’s something that got me into a lot of trouble [earlier]. It gets me away from just being myself and the player that I am.
“The biggest thing for me is just allowing my talent to take over, stop trying to push things, stop trying to press the fact of performance, and just going out and just having fun and help the team win.”
He’s been doing that, particularly over the last three-plus weeks. In 32 games with the Sea Dogs, he’s hitting .305/.388/.517 with 6 homers, numbers that compare favorably with those he posted after a midyear promotion last year (.250/.310/.492). In his last 21 games, Chavis is hitting .400/.477/.627.
One NL scout suggested that Chavis had reestablished his prospect status of a year ago. An AL evaluator, meanwhile, suggested that he looked more like a big league everyday player this year than at any time in the past based on defensive improvements and greater on-field athleticism.
While others remain cautious in reevaluating Chavis, Red Sox player development staff see clear progress.
Farm director Ben Crockett thinks Chavis is a better player than he was a year ago, “and talking to the staff here, they absolutely think so,” said Crockett. “I think he continues to evolve as a hitter, to be more complete, to understand what he’s doing up there, to have a better understanding of the strike zone and what he can attack. He continues to improve.”
Entering the year, Chavis envisioned such improvements carrying him up the ladder. With a spot on the 40-man roster on the horizon this winter, a progression that would have taken him from Portland to Pawtucket to Boston was within reach.
Instead, he’s had to reset his expectations. He’s focused on becoming a more complete player – someone who can hit for average instead of being an all-or-nothing power threat. If he can accomplish those improvements in 2018, then others may come into reach by next year.
“I had goals for this year that were kind of taken away from me,” said Chavis. “I want to make sure that coming in the next year, what I want to happen, I’m going to make happen. That’s what I want to do.”
Just 37 games into his 2018 campaign, the thought of next year is present. On one hand, there is relief in the notion that the constant emotional gymnastics of this season will come to a conclusion. On the other hand, Chavis — who will play in either the Arizona Fall League or a foreign winter league to get more at-bats — wishes he had more time to play this year, to cement some of the improvements he believes he’s making.
Even with about a week and a half left to play with Portland, however, Chavis has already had time to reflect on what this year will — or at least could — mean. All of that idle time in Fort Myers during a suspension gave him plenty of time to ponder his existence, his frustrations — and the possibilities.
So, when asked how he’ll come to view 2018, he requires little time to answer.
“Growth. Preparation,” he said. “When I’m hitting third for the Red Sox playing the Yankees, [I’m] not going to hear very nice words. So I think this is kind of just the preparation. Lord knows they can’t say much worse than what I’ve been hearing.
“I’m a big believer in that everything does actually happen for a reason. God’s plan is not only bigger, but it’s better than whatever you can create within yourself, and at the point I’m at now, I’m just trusting that.
“I don’t know what the purpose was, but I’m trusting that there was a reason for this to happen, and whatever that purpose is, and it’s going to be something big.”
■ A sleeper possibility for the postseason roster: Utilityman Tzu-Wei Lin. Lin is quietly having an excellent year in Triple A, hitting .315/.370/.468, including .350/.409/.517 since the All-Star break. Though not a base stealer, he’s an above-average runner who can play short, second, third, and center field, presenting several late-inning options (or, at least, insurance).
■ Righthander Kutter Crawford has had three solid outings in High A Salem since his promotion from Single A Greenville. Though 1-2 with a modest 3.86 ERA, he hasn’t given up much solid contact (no homers), and he has continued to attack the strike zone, striking out 22 and walking four in 16⅓ innings while showing his four-pitch mix.
■ Perhaps the most unhittable pitcher in the farm system is Zach Schellenger, a pitcher who has spent most of his first two pro seasons trying to get healthy but who, when on the mound, has overwhelmed batters.
He has struck out 17 of 41 hitters (41 percent) he’s faced this year between rookie ball and Greenville, and of the 24 balls put in play against him, virtually everything has been a grounder. With a low three-quarters righthanded arm slot and a ton of movement, there are some similarities to Carson Smith — though with some health questions that are likewise shared by the Red Sox reliever.
■ Since first baseman Josh Ockimey got off to a strong start in Triple A, homering in three of his first four games, he has struggled against more advanced plans of attack, going 3 for 28 with 14 strikeouts in 33 plate appearances (42 percent strikeout rate).
■ Salem righthander Tanner Houck has been sidelined since his start Aug. 14 with soreness in his side. It remains to be seen whether he’s able to pitch again before the conclusion of the minor league season.
■ Third baseman Nick Northcut, who got off to a terrific start in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, may be tiring as he wraps up his first pro summer. In his last 11 games, the 19-year-old has struck out 18 times in 44 plate appearances (41 percent) while hitting .179/.250/.205.
First-rounder Triston Casas (surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament) and second-rounder Nick Decker (wrist fracture) are both progressing well in their rehabs. Both appear likely to take part in fall instructional league, and Decker may make his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League before that season concludes. Righthander Bryan Mata (back) is also expected to be ready to participate in instructional league in some capacity, though not necessarily in games. Catcher Kole Cottam required surgery to repair a torn meniscus and will not be able to participate.